Larvae of the coral eating crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci in a warmer-high CO2 ocean

Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS), Acanthaster planci, contribute to major declines of coral reef ecosystems throughout the Indo-Pacific. As the oceans warm and decrease in pH due to increased anthropogenic CO2 production, coral reefs are also susceptible to bleaching, disease and reduced calcification. The impacts of ocean acidification and warming may be exacerbated by COTS predation, but it is not known how this major predator will fare in a changing ocean. Because larval success is a key driver of population outbreaks, we investigated the sensitivities of larval A. planci to increased temperature (2–4 °C above ambient) and acidification (0.3–0.5 pH units below ambient) in flow-through cross-factorial experiments (3 temperature × 3 pH/pCO2 levels). There was no effect of increased temperature or acidification on fertilization or very early development. Larvae reared in the optimal temperature (28 °C) were the largest across all pH treatments. Development to advanced larva was negatively affected by the high temperature treatment (30 °C) and by both experimental pH levels (pH 7.6, 7.8). Thus, planktonic life stages of A. planci may be negatively impacted by near-future global change. Increased temperature and reduced pH had an additive negative effect on reducing larval size. The 30 °C treatment exceeded larval tolerance regardless of pH. As 30 °C sea surface temperatures may become the norm in low latitude tropical regions, poleward migration of A. planci may be expected as they follow optimal isotherms. In the absence of acclimation or adaptation, declines in low latitude populations may occur. Poleward migration will be facilitated by strong western boundary currents, with possible negative flow-on effects on high latitude coral reefs. The contrasting responses of the larvae of A. planci and those of its coral prey to ocean acidification and warming are considered in context with potential future change in tropical reef ecosystems.

Kamya P. Z., Dworjanyn S. A., Hardy N., Mos B., Uthicke S. & Byrne M., in press. Larvae of the coral eating crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci in a warmer-high CO2 ocean. Global Change Biology. Article (subscription required).

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